Lawsuit Claims Discrimination At Court House
When Yvette Woodard heard that 20 percent of the 321 units in the Court House apartments in downtown Brooklyn were going to be affordable to low-income tenants, she thought it sounded too good to be true, but she applied anyway.
Now, more than three years later, Woodard is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, filed in October, against David Walentas’ Two Trees Management Co. and Settlement Housing Fund, a 38-year-old non-profit housing development group hired by the realty giant to screen low-income applicants. The suit charges that Two Trees and SHF discriminated on the basis of race and disability. It also alleges that separate and unequal standards were used to determine eligibility for market-rate and low-income apartments.
Woodard’s story began in the fall of 2004, when she learned about the construction of what is known as an “80/20” building on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. In this type of affordable housing plan, a for-profit housing developer agrees to reserve 20 percent of the newly-created units for low income tenants earning no more than 50 percent of area resident’s median annual income, which was approximately $33,000 in 2004. In exchange, the developer receives floating or fixed-rate financing, a 20 year abatement on real estate taxes, and federal low income tax credits. Walentas received $92 million in government money for Court Houses’ affordable units.
Woodard, of course, was not concerned about tax write-offs or funding schemes and was simply looking for a safe, affordable, well-maintained home. Now 45, she recalls learning about the complex from the Pratt Area Community Council. “I heard that a lottery was going to take place in September 2004 for the affordable units so I sent in an application. In November, I got a letter saying I had to come in for an interview,” she says. The letter contained a list of documents she needed to bring.
Woodard remembers her excitement. She had been living in a 12-unit walk-up in Clinton Hill and, while she loved the neighborhood, worsening health and mobility problems made it difficult for her to climb stairs. So she was looking for a place that would make life easier. She knew she’d be happier in an elevator building.
“The Court House apartments were close to my community, my doctors, my friends,” she says. “It has a doorman and it’s beautiful. I felt I was deserving and saw no reason I shouldn’t have been there.”
The first interview seemed to go smoothly. “I saw a woman named Anna Albanese,” she says. “They did a credit check on me that day and when she called me in, she said, ‘Congratulations. Your credit was approved.’” Woodard recalls showing Albanese numerous documents and, when asked to submit a letter verifying her son’s college attendance, she hurried to do so.
With the holidays fast approaching, Woodard started to get anxious when she had not heard back from SHF. “I called Ms. Albanese sometime in late December and she said she needed to do a credit check on my son who had turned 18 on December 18,” Woodard explains. She brought the necessary documents, a few more weeks passed, and she placed another call to Albanese. This time Woodard was told she needed divorce papers from a marriage that had ended in 1991.
“I was shocked when she asked me if my ex-husband was going to live with me,” Woodard says, ”I said, ‘No,’ that I didn’t even know where he was.” The divorce was filed in Florida, so Woodard had to have her mother, who lived there, get the divorce papers. After this, she was asked for a doctor’s letter detailing her disability and was also told that a home visit to her Clinton Hill apartment had to be scheduled. Although this annoyed Woodard, when Albanese told her to “start packing” she relaxed and began preparing for the move.
What happened next floored her. On March 4, 2005 she received a letter which began with the words, “We regret to inform you.” Court House had denied her application. The reason listed was late payment of utility bills, which Woodard denies.
“That Monday I got on the phone to Ms. Albanese and she said, ‘Oh, Ms. Woodard. It’s not in my hands. You can appeal the letter.’” Woodard did this, but was again rejected and the case was closed. “I was devastated,” she recalls. Still, Woodard got on the phone and called everyone she could think of. Borough President Marty Markowitz and Council member Letitia James offered sympathy, she says, but not housing.
Eventually, Woodard found the Fair Housing Justice Center. The FHJC was established in 2005 to challenge systemic housing discrimination and strengthen the enforcement of protections that make it illegal to discriminate in the rental, sale or financing of shelter.
According to FHJC Executive Director Diane Houk, after Woodard came forward, “testers”—professional actors who pose as housing applicants to determine if racial, gender, sexual preference, age or disability discrimination exists at a particular housing development—repeatedly visited the Court House apartments.
“We sent people with the same social and economic characteristics to inquire about the same types of housing within the same price range so that we could compare results,” Houk says. “For example, we sent a white man in his 40s and a Black man in his 40s, with the same income, and then a supposedly-married couple, and compared the information they were given.”
“All 80/20 buildings in New York City have two separate admission processes,” Houk explains. “They need to because income requirements are very strict and demand is so high. That’s okay and does not violate fair housing laws.” On the other hand, non-financial admission requirements are supposed to be comparable—what is asked of market rate applicants should be the same as what is asked of those with low-incomes.
That wasn’t how it worked at Court House. Instead, testers found that market rate applicants heard about the building’s amenities—laundry facilities on each floor, indoor parking, satellite TV, high speed Internet connections, and roof terraces—in greater detail than low-income applicants. What’s more, the availability of particular units seemed to vary according to race, with white applicants given earlier move-in dates than people of color.
And that’s not all. According to Woodard’s attorney, Brent Meltzer of South Brooklyn Legal Services, rental policies were mired in prejudice and stereotype. “I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people applying for market rate apartments won’t be people of color and the disabled. Likewise, the majority of people applying for affordable apartments, like Ms. Woodard, will be people of color and the disabled.”
Meltzer believes that knowing this, Two Trees and SHF created more rigorous terms and conditions for those applying for affordable housing. “We believe that what’s necessary for the affordable units is necessary for market rate tenants. For example, the request that Ms. Woodard bring in her divorce papers was burdensome. It had nothing to do with whether she’d be a good tenant,” he says.
Meltzer also objects to the proposed, but never carried out, visit to Woodard’s Clinton Hill apartment. “Did people applying for the affordable units need to be observed in their own environment? Did management assume they weren’t good housekeepers?” he asks, noting that home visits weren’t done for market rate applicants.
While no one from Two Trees or SHF would comment on the specifics of Woodward’s rejection since it is in litigation, Two Trees’ publicist, The Howard Rubenstein Agency, emailed the following statement: “The suit was filed by a woman who had previously filed and then withdrew complaints at no less than three government housing agencies and is completely without basis. Our affordable rentals are administered by a respected non-profit organization under a procedure that is in compliance with all Fair Housing laws, and which is submitted in advance to the State of New York. We do not discriminate on the basis of race or disability and the diversity of our tenants in downtown Brooklyn’s first affordable units speak for itself.”
Walentas and SHF further claim that statistics refute suggestions of racial prejudice. Of the 64 affordable units at Court House, they say, 24 have been rented to African-Americans, 20 to Latinos, 3 to Asians, and 10 to Caucasians. The remaining 7 were rented to people who did not designate a racial category. They also note that 7 units were rented to people with disabilities.
“The Fair Housing Act provides for different forums to make claims,” Meltzer explains with regard to Woodard’s withdrawn applications. “Ms. Woodard filed with other agencies before she found Legal Services. When we got involved, we withdrew them because we felt the federal courts were the best place to deal with this type of issue.” Similarly, Meltzer calls the numbers meaningless. “It’s not just the denial of housing that can be discriminatory, but also the terms and conditions on which you rent an apartment,” he says.
Woodard did leave Clinton Hill in 2006 and now resides in a ground floor apartment in Crown Heights. But she’s still angry that she was rejected by Court House and hopes the lawsuit will force the company to treat applicants for affordable housing the same way they treat market rate tenants. “I’m mature, stable and quiet. I’m a Christian. I don’t smoke in the house. I would have been a perfect tenant,” she says.
The case is expected to go to trial in early 2008.
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher. In addition to the Rail, her work appears in Library Journal, Lilith, The Indypendent, Z, The Public Eye and womensenews.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader